Q&A Michelle Madsen: a British Poet with Latin American Roots

Michelle is an award-winning poet and journalist. She is the founder and host of Hammer and Tongue London, part of the UK’s largest slam poetry network, and has featured on stages as far afield as San Francisco, Berlin, New York and Aarhus. She has worked as a poet in residence at la Zona Imaginaria in Buenos Aires and at the Maison Folies in Mons, Belgium. In 2013 she took her show I’m Sorry I Haven’t Haiku, the world’s first and possibly last ever poetry panel game, to the Edinburgh Festival. She has opened for Kate Tempest and interviewed many people, including Tony Blair, Ronnie Wood and the president of Guinea.


Since I met you, I’ve been fascinated by the fact that you seem ‘Argentine’ in some aspects, though you are British.  Do you think that has an impact on your writing? 

I am glad you think I am very Argentine! I keep having arguments with my mum about this, she is from near Cordoba but has lived in the UK for the past 40 years – she met my dad, who is Danish here and they built a life here. She says I am English, but I don’t really know what being English is. I never feel more English than when I first arrive in Buenos Aires, or Villa Maria. I was brought up speaking a bit of Spanish but no Danish and remember feeling awkward and foreign (and pale) when we visited Argentina when I was a child. After a few weeks, when my Spanish comes back to me, and I drink a lot of mate, and I get used to the rhythms of the place, I feel as if I belong a bit more. I never learned Danish and don’t feel very connected to my Dad’s side of the family aside from a love of cinnamon buns and schnapps and expansive Scandinavian vistas.I definitely don’t feel like I have deep roots in the UK but I am fascinated by it as a place. I grew up on a solid diet of CS Lewis, Tolkein, Diana Wynne Jones and later Graham Greene, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh. Stiff stuff of empire and Englishness and magical worlds in the green remembered hills and what happens to Englishness abroad and this thick rich air of entitlement. But then I realised I was seeing the world from this really Anglophonic, Anglophilic point of view and started reading work about different places by writers who were from those places and realised that gave me a completely different feeling, it was like discovering a whole new set of flavours. I’m currently really interested in working with the universal aspects of myth and fairytale and placing them in lived settings, with tangible details taken from a moment of here and now. I don’t know if it’s getting me any closer to a feeling of belonging but it is fascinating and leading me to all sorts of strange and interesting places, both physically and in my mind!

You have performed at festivals from Latitude, to Edinburgh, to the Secret Garden Party, to Bestival to Glastonbury. You were the founder of Hammer and Tongue, and you have done many interviews for radio, TV, and on. However, you don’t seem like a haughty person…

I can be very haughty indeed, especially if I get over excited or carried away. I think it might be all those books about/by posh people I read when I was growing up… haughtiness seemed to be a good way to behave if you want to get things done. Which is rubbish because pulling rank on people is usually a sign of your own insecurity or ability to deal with a situation without resorting to bullying or using your privilege. I’ve become very interested in clowning recently – it’s an incredible world which requires you as a performer to be completely present and completely yourself. Which might sound simple but is definitely on of the hardest things I have ever done… you are faced with your own humanity, all of it, all the grim ego crackly bits which your haughty self would deny exists. We’re not the sum of the things that we have done, we are who we are in any one moment, which is a delicious cocktail of ego, insecurity, hilarity, madness and mania at any given moment. If you can ditch your own idea of your own importance or status the world is much more exciting, you can see things more clearly and you can have a lot more fun when you’re interviewing people who are very sure of their own self-importance.

You are studying Theatre, but you completed a degree in Literature from Oxford University, why do you think studying theatre is important at this point in your career?

Poetic body, creating art which can be understood regardless of language, collaborating with other artists. Theatre is hard. Or rather making good theatre is hard. You are dealing with so many different languages, sound, light voice, body, text, music, dance… it’s like stumbling across a crazy fairground after walking along a quiet woodland path (which has incredible depth and madness and richness all of its own). You can get drunk on all the options in front of you, and it’s treacherous and expensive. A lot of the poets I know are breaking far more artistic boundaries than the theatre-makers I encounter, maybe that’s because they are approaching artistic conversations from a more focused starting point.

What do you/ don’t like about Spanish and Latin American literature?

I love the emotion and the musicality of Latin American literature, the absurdity and the magic and the irreverence and the reinvention of old forms. Sometimes it is a bit too formal for me and a bit too dry…but that’s maybe because I don’t understand enough!

What do you like about British literature? Especially poetry.

I love the great history of storytelling we have on this island, I love reading a poem and feeling my way through all the layers of previous poets and worlds and experiences which have come before it. I love the vibrancy of the British poetry scene and how it is developing – I’d love to see it open out, however, it’s very monolingual and amazing things can happen with literature which weaves in and out of different languages… I hope the island mentality eases enough for these experiments to happen.

What bothers you in your everyday life? Does this have an influence on your writing?

Housing crisis, racism, sexism, hypocrisy, the patriarchy, my own hubris and fear of failure and reluctance to commit. All this influences my writing. Sometimes it influences my writing so much that I can write anything because I am so hung up on all this madness.

Merry Berry is presented in one of your poems, and you talk about being baked. Can you expand on this topic for someone from another country?

Mary Berry is a famous tv cook and cake maker. She hosts a programme called the great British bake off where ordinary people compete. It quickly became a tv institution and some poets I know started a blog called the great British bard off. I am a sucker for a good pun so couldn’t resist writing something for it. There is so much drama and tragedy in the bake-off. So much failure, so many tears. And all covered with icing sugar and jam. I love it.

Also, there was a Peruvian poet called Cesar Vallejo, who has a poem called ‘Los Heraldos Negros/Black Messengers’ which is a very beautiful poem and has a verse that says,’ Those bloody blows are the crepitation of some bread getting burned on us by the oven’s door.’ Do you agree with the idea of using food as a vehicle for something deeper?

Absolutely. Food is a religion in my family home, every dish my mother made came with a comment about ‘this was how mum used to make them’ and there would always be a pan of tomato sauce bubbling away on the hob. On the other side of my family, Danish baking ruled. Freshly baked bread and crisp linens and cured, obscure meats and lard and fried onions. I have a fairly complex relationship with food, I had an eating disorder in my late teens which I never really talked about and at the same time, was using food as a way of communing and communicating with people. I use food in performance and am fascinated by the ritual of the meal and how this is threatened by modern living where we are invited to eat as an aside to another, more important activity. We all eat, we die if we don’t. It is a common language and the viscerality of food lends itself well to describing the complex and difficult. I like writing about food and being able to smell all the ingredients, feel the texture of a tomato skin easing and giving under my fingers. I find it really transformative.

I know you’ve been working on new forms of performing poetry and you also have the 7 min itch about experimental poetry, do you have new projects regarding this?

I am working on a clowning/poetry show about how women (and men) are unconsciously molded by the stories we are fed growing up calle Tales which is in development and will be on at the Brighton Fringe in May and hopefully Edinburgh in August. I am fascinated by the Tarot and have been working on intimate performances which involve reading the tarot and translating those readings in haiku. I am also working on a show about flying and failing which I’m hoping to get on stage in 2019 and i also run an all-woman floating vaudeville show called Bargerella… and I have some very exciting aquatic performance poetry ideas for that which will be taking to the water this summer. Watch this space.

How important is humour in your poetry?

Life is inherently hilarious/awful, depending on where you are looking at it from at any given moment. I love laughing at the absurdities of the human condition that we think we’re invincible for the first half of our lives and spend the rest of the time coming to terms with our own mortality, or pretending we’ll live forever.  I think that’s why I am so attracted to clowning, it’s an invitation to look at yourself as you really are and all of the glorious idiocy of life and strip away all the masks. That’s what poetry is for me – or I used poems to create masks through which I can ask the questions of life I cannot find ways to ask through prose. And why I work with food, because it rots, because theatre and food are ephemeral and exist in that moment and then go.



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